The Guardian — Strict British and US counter-terrorism laws are discouraging humanitarian organisations from delivering vital emergency assistance to millions of people facing starvation and fatal diseases in drought-hit Somalia.
Senior humanitarian officials say the laws, which target any individual or organisation found to have materially assisted a terrorist group, exert a “chilling effect” on vital assistance in areas of Somalia controlled by Islamic militants from al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida affiliate.
The worst drought for 40 years in the unstable east African country threatens 6 million people with famine. Most of the worst hit – around 2 million people – live in areas run by al-Shabaab.
Humanitarian officials say it is almost impossible to guarantee that no aid will reach the extremists if they work there, and fear this means they will fall foul of the laws, exposing them to potential prosecution.
“US and UK terrorism financing laws are a significant discouragement to operating in al-Shabaab areas. At the very least, you could end up wasting a huge amount of time explaining yourself; at worst, if substantial amounts of aid were appropriated by al-Shabaab – as has happened to people in the past – you could end up in court with your organisation shut down,” said the country director of one major international NGO working in Somalia.
Moving any aid by land in Somalia involves paying “taxes” at road blocks run by different armed groups, including al-Shabaab. UN experts estimated that at the height of its power in 2010 al-Shabaab imposed fees and taxes that totalled on average $90,000 (£70,200) per aid agency every six months.
Also, any access to al-Shabaab controlled areas for NGOs would have to involve negotiations with local community and clan elders, of whom some are likely to be connected to the insurgents.
Justin Brady, a senior UN humanitarian official responsible for overseeing the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars of international assistance in Somalia, said the primary reason for NGOs avoiding areas run by al-Shabaab remained the security threat posed by the Islamic militants. But, he said, the US and UK laws were poorly understood and a disincentive.
“Once you get past [the security issues], that becomes a consideration and you have to figure out how you can work there … It has a chilling effect. I’m sure in Washington or London it’s clear what [the laws] meant but here it is much more difficult,” Brady said.
Senior UN officials in Somalia recently sought clarification from the US and the UK about potential prosecution. Unofficial advice to NGOs, given via the UN, is that “a blind eye” is being turned to any humanitarian operations in al-Shabaab controlled zones following legal changes to allow a “humanitarian exception” to the counter-terrorist laws.
British officials last week said the NGOs’ anxiety is unfounded, and pointed out that no one has been prosecuted by the US or the UK under the legislation.
“The bottom line is that there is an emergency and the priority for everyone is getting aid to those who need it, wherever they are,” said David Concar, the British ambassador to Somalia, in an interview with the Guardian in Mogadishu last week.
“We know some organisations are successfully getting aid through to communities in dire need of help in al-Shabaab controlled areas. [Counter terrorist] legislation is not intended to stop – and nor should it actually stop – any aid groups from working in such areas as long as they have the necessary controls in place and they’re not deliberately supporting terrorists.”
Despite the reassurances, deep anxiety remains among aid planners, who say they need clear guidance from the US and UK. This would be politically difficult, as it could be seen as sanctioning negotiations with terrorist organisations.
In 2011, during the last major famine, little aid made it into al-Shabaab held areas. One expert report, published after the emergency, listed “constraints on aid agencies related to counter-terrorism legislation” as important factors contributing to the death toll of more than 250,000.
The British government was forced to write off aid worth £480,000 following a series of thefts between November 2011 and February 2012 by al-Shabaab from the offices and warehouses of partner organisations.
In this new crisis, the Islamic militants have allowed women and children, and some men, to leave areas under their control to travel to government-held towns – such as Baidoa, 250km north-west of Mogadishu – where medical assistance, water and food is available.
The greatest obstacles to delivering desperately needed assistance to those who live in zones controlled, or at least contested, by al-Shabaab remain the potential for corruption and for direct attacks from the militants.
Senior NGO officials said the laws forced them to “think twice” before undertaking such operations – even if security was guaranteed. Any humanitarian activity is therefore “under the radar”, thus ruling out major interventions.
“Everyone wants to turn a blind eye, but that means you’re not going to get to scale. We are not going to put down a large cholera treatment centre which everyone can get to, for example, so we can’t get quantity, and because we can’t get technical experts in we can’t get quality either,” Brady said.
In September 2009, the Obama administration temporarily suspended shipments of US food aid to Somalia pending a policy review.
Experts say humanitarian agencies have a right under the Geneva conventions and international humanitarian law to negotiate with non-state parties to an armed conflict to access famine victims.
The concerns about possible prosecution underline the difficulties of delivering aid in the middle of a civil war, where communities in desperate need are in zones controlled by a proscribed terrorist organisation.
The UN says it needs $4.4bn (£3.4bn) for humanitarian assistance to more than 20 million people facing famine in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen in what officials have described as the biggest humanitarian emergency since the organisation was founded in 1945.
Each of the four countries is deep in a conflict involving an array of local and regional actors. In three of them, Islamic militants, including al-Qaida and Islamic State, play a role, making access to vulnerable communities extremely difficult.
Saving Somalia Through Debt Relief
Somalia needs humanitarian aid to stem its short-term suffering, but that cash will not break the country’s deadly cycles of drought, hunger, and poverty. To do that, the IMF must forgive Somalia’s crushing debt, just as it has for nearly every other heavily indebted poor country.
LONDON – Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, once asked his country’s creditors a blunt question: “Must we starve our children to pay our debts?” That was in 1986, before the public campaigns and initiatives that removed much of Africa’s crushing and unpayable debt burden. But Nyerere’s question still hangs like a dark cloud over Somalia.
Over the last year, an unprecedented humanitarian effort has pulled Somalia back from the brink of famine. As the worst drought in living memory destroyed harvests and decimated livestock, almost $1 billion was mobilized in emergency aid for nutrition, health, and clean water provision. That aid saved many lives and prevented a slow-motion replay of the 2011 drought, when delayed international action resulted in nearly 260,000 deaths.
Yet, even after these recent efforts, Somalia’s fate hangs in the balance. Early warning systems are pointing to a prospective famine in 2018. Poor and erratic rains have left 2.5 million people facing an ongoing food crisis; some 400,000 children live with acute malnutrition; food prices are rising; and dry wells have left communities dependent on expensive trucked water.
Humanitarian aid remains essential. Almost half of Somalia’s 14 million people need support, according to UN agencies. But humanitarian aid, which is often volatile and overwhelmingly short-term, will not break the deadly cycles of drought, hunger, and poverty. If Somalia is to develop its health and education systems, economic infrastructure, and the social protection programs needed to build a more resilient future, it needs predictable, long-term development finance.
Debt represents a barrier to that finance. Somalia’s external debt is running at $5 billion. Creditors range from rich countries like the United States, France, and Italy, to regional governments and financial institutions, including the Arab Monetary Fund.
But Somalia’s debt also includes $325 million in arrears owed to the International Monetary Fund. And there’s the rub: countries in arrears to the IMF are ineligible to receive long-term financing from other sources, including the World Bank’s $75 billion concessional International Development Association (IDA) facility.
Much of the country’s current debt dates to the Cold War, when the world’s superpower rivalry played out in the Horn of Africa. Over 90% of Somalia’s debt burden is accounted for by arrears on credit advanced in the early 1980s, well before two-thirds of today’s Somali population was born.
Most of the lending then was directed to President Siad Barre as a reward for his abandonment of the Soviet Union and embrace of the West. Military credits figured prominently: over half of the $973 million in US debt is owed to the Department of Defense. Somalia got state-of-the-art weaponry, liberally financed by loans. The IMF was nudged into guaranteeing repayment through a structural adjustment program. Repaying the debt today would cost every Somali man, woman, and child $361.
None of this would matter if Somalia had qualified for debt reduction. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), created in response to the great debt relief campaigns of the 1990s, has written off around $77 billion in debt for 36 countries. Somalia is one of just three countries that have yet to qualify. The reason: the arrears owed to the IMF. (Eritrea and Sudan have also not qualified, for similar reasons).
The IMF view is that Somalia, like earlier HIPC beneficiaries, should establish a track record of economic reform. This will delay a full debt write-off for up to three years, exclude Somalia from long-term development finance, and reinforce its dependence on emergency aid. Other creditors have endorsed this approach through silent consent.
Somalia deserves better. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government has demonstrated a commitment to economic reform, improved accountability, and transparency. For two years, it has adhered to an IMF program, achieving targets for improving public finance and the banking sector. More needs to be done, especially in terms of domestic resource mobilization. But this is the first Somali government to provide the international community with a window of opportunity to support recovery. We must capitalize on it.
Waiting three more years as Somalia ticks the IMF’s internal accounting boxes would be a triumph of bureaucratic complacency over human needs. Without international support, Somalia’s government lacks the resources needed to break the deadly cycle of drought, hunger, and poverty.
Somalia’s children need investment in health, nutrition, and schools now, not at some point in the indefinite future. Investing in irrigation and water management would boost productivity. With drought-related livestock and crop losses estimated at around $1.5 billion, government-supported cash payment programs would help aid recovery, strengthen resilience, and build trust.
The benefits of these investments would extend to security. Providing the hope that comes with education, health care, and the prospect of a job is a far more effective weapon than a drone to combat an insurgency that feeds on despair, poverty, joblessness, and the absence of basic services.
There is an alternative to IMF-sponsored inertia on debt relief. The World Bank and major creditors could convene a creditor summit to agree to terms for a prompt debt write-off. More immediately, the World Bank could seek its shareholders’ approval for a special mechanism – a “pre-arrears clearance grant” – that would enable Somalia to receive IDA financing. There is a precedent for this: In 2005, the US championed World Bank financing for Liberia, which at the time had significant IMF debt after emerging from civil war.
The technicalities can be discussed and the complexities resolved. But we should not lose sight of what is at stake. It is indefensible for the IMF and other creditors to obstruct Somalia’s access to financing because of arrears on a debt incurred three decades ago as much through reckless lending as through irresponsible borrowing.
Somalia’s children played no part in creating that debt. They should not have to pay for it with their futures.
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